Learning from History ? Pre-war Germany and Now


Launch of GESHER magazine 16 October 2007, “Stonnington”, Melbourne.

It is more than thirty years since I started on this road, focusing on Christian and Jewish studies, then branching out with a minor specialty in my graduate years in Buddhism.

My idea in the early days was to understand religion in history, with a special focus on the relationship between the two western biblical faiths, to see whether there was a basis for repairing the bridge (the gesher in Hebrew) that had been so utterly destroyed in the Second World War. In my youthful idealism I imagined that my studies formed part of a bridge, which Western intelligentsia were building out of the wreckage, and across which people of good will and understanding would walk and talk and tell each other how things looked from their perspective. That bridge beckoned and perhaps took on a sort of shimmering idealism, built by people of good faith, such as, Alice and Roy Eckhart,1 the Rev’d James Parkes,2 and Jules Isaac;3 posthumously by the Lutheran theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently, by the Catholic educator, Eugene Fischer, the Jewish former head of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Rabbi David Rosen, the current head of the ICCJ, Fr John Pawlikowski. And in this country by the scholars and long time members of the Council of Christians and Jews Rev’d Dr Robert Anderson, Rabbi John Levi and Sr Marianne Dacy — to name but a few who are dedicated to this field of interfaith relations.

But back in the early 1970s, the way to that shimmering ideal of interfaith understanding was down a dark and winding path. The books by Jacob Katz, such as From Prejudice to Destruction (1980), and Exclusiveness and Tolerance (1961) by George Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (1964) and Toward the Final Solution (1978), and by the part Jew, part Catholic writer, Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocid (1967), stand out from my early university years because they detailed the philosophical, social and political currents that led up to the greatest rift between European Christians and Jews in modern history — the Holocaust. These were eye opening studies for a young aspiring academic, because they revealed that it was not on the streets where hatred was born, but in the Academy, in the cultural associations and in the literary circles, where it was formed into a poisonous rhetoric of seemingly logical and scientifically based arguments. Far from science being a beacon of Truth, every kind of scientist — clamoured to support the Nazi cause.

How was it that churches, particularly in Germany and Austria, were losing their authority to the ideas generated in the Academy and in the spiritual movements which were spreading their enthusiasms among the populace? It wasn’t difficult, to be sure, in a world that was lurching from the catastrophe of WW I and the break up of empires, to the rise of pan nationalist movements, utopian communism and the inflated promises of science. By comparison, the Church looked like a hobbled institution struggling to keep up with the tide of the new. The culture of Europe was rapidly changing, and for the first time Eastern influences found their way into new religious movements, combined with occult ideas, esotericism, and pagan mythology. The German Faith Movement by Jacob Hauer was a case in point. It received official endorsement by the SS and was developed to replace the Christian Church.

Why go back to that awful time now, on such an occasion as the launch of Gesher magazine, the annual publication of the Council of Christians and Jews in Victoria? Because history is one of the greatest natural resources, which we are rapidly frittering away like the water we so desperately need to conserve. History reveals the deep ruts that have been engraved in our consciousness by the currents that regularly surge through our world. History tells us what is possible, and what is not impossible. And we are never apart from history — everything we do and say is etched into its annals; and by the simplest and also the grandest of undertakings we can change its course.

Jacob Hauer was a lucky fellow. Not wealthy enough to provide for his own higher education, a Christian minister and friend of his parents, offered to pay for it, and sent him to India as a missionary. Perhaps the minister sensed that Hauer was in danger of losing his Christian faith, and hoped that being a missionary in India might cure him. But that was not to be. In India he became intoxicated with the Baghavad Gita, the most popular book of the voluminous Mahabharata. He deepened his disdain for Christianity and its parent Judaism. When he returned to Germany, Hauer was determined to start a new religion, based on his misreading of the Baghavad Gita as an a-moral text. Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna encouraging him to go to war can seem like an a-moral story if you read it out of context of the Hindu tradition, which is what Hauer did. But it also inspired Hauer to revive the pre-Christian paganism of the German people. A couple of generations of German philosophy, including Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals and Thus Spake Zarathustra, had already prepared the way for this clash of pagan and Christian civilizations on German soil.

What is interesting about the German Faith Movement is that such ideas of folkish spirit were all the rage in Europe, fed by the new academic interest in the anthropology of primitive cultures. Even the German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, was interested in it. His study of the folk tales of the Hasidim was driven by a belief that this simpler story telling tradition of the poor village Jews was more authentic than the scholasticism of the rabbis in their academies (yeshivot). Buber, whose work was later criticized for its excessive romanticism, attended a few meetings of the association which Jacob Hauer had formed, but when Hauer became increasingly anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi, Buber moved on.

That was more than 70 years ago, but when I first studied those events, they were only half that. Even then, I thought the world of the future would surely never succumb to such diabolical naiveté again, even though, granted, the pull of romanticism, religious re-invention, and bigotry are always with us. But in the past few years, especially since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, and October 12 , 2005, and their aftermath, my hope for a wiser world has all but vanished. Nothing could have prepared me for the widespread escalation of anti-semitism, which bizarrely blamed the Jews for the destruction of the World Trade Centre. The rising tide of self-flagellation, which accused the victims of terrorism for inciting it, has all the hallmarks of a psychosis. And the unquestioning acceptance of Islamist propaganda that terrorism against the West is caused primarily by Israel and its attitude toward the Palestinians is the most disingenuous of all.

I am stunned by the supposedly informed audiences at Writers Festivals who bray for the further dismantling of the tiny Jewish state, and yet never question the existence of even one of the 57 majority Muslim countries, which rarely grant Christians (and any other religion) even the most rudimentary of religious freedoms. I am flabbergasted when universities, churches, socially conscious leaders, and human rights advocates relentlessly mark out Israel for isolation and condemnation, and never interrogate the responsibilities that Arab nations, such as Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Egypt bear for the history of Palestinians in the modern world. And what of the responsibilities that Palestinians have for their own role in the conflict? Why is there silence about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his open admiration of and active collaboration with Hitler? The film footage is revealing, including the Mufti’s mustering of a Bosnian Army for the Nazis. But those who claim to be interested in the history of the Palestinians are either mute or justify the Mufti’s actions as a reasonable response to the proposal of a two state solution.

To now, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is moved to criticise the Palestinians who have persecuted and murdered Christians in Gaza, most recently the 32 year old father of three, Fami Khader Ayyad, head of the Protestant Holy Bible Society in Gaza City. Hamas’ campaign of religious cleansing, and indeed, the anti-Christian cleansing that is going on in Iraq, is blamed on Israel and America, respectively, in what can only be a most cowardly and convoluted reasoning that is essentially unwilling to name the perpetrators.

Most of all, I am struck by the eerie parallel of the 1930s and the present. How is it that the eradication of the entire Jewish people from Europe was the widely accepted ‘final solution’ in the 20th Century (16 European countries delivered their Jews to the death camps), and now in the 21st Century, it is the elimination of Israel, which is identified as the final solution to the problem of global jihad?

But the problem we face is not just located far from Australia in the northern hemisphere. It is also here and on university campuses in the West. When I read of student groups in Australia that oppose democracy and insist that Muslims must resist integration, I am far from sanguine. Recently, Ali Kassae, the former son in law of Sheik Omran of Victoria, was reported saying that he was among a group that was ‘taught to hate’ by being shown violent propaganda videos, which declare “You should hate them as they hate you. Invade them as they invade you, fight them as they fight you. Whoever dies will be granted the mercy of God and paradise. Jews have no place in Palestine. Jews shouldn’t be there. Jews should die. We should proclaim jihad until they all die, until every single of them is dead.” ABC journalist, Sally Neighbour has been a beacon in this field, as she has brought to the Australian public reports of the jihadi cells in our midst, and the materials they use to promote their aim. But even she has to defend herself from the accusation that merely by reporting this local scourge, she is stirring up hatred for Muslims.

When I read the propaganda of the international movement, Hizb-ut Tahrir, for example, which promotes amongst university students and on its website, the need for a worldwide caliphate, I am deeply disturbed to discover in the press that its leaders in Australia preach about jihad, not as an internal spiritual struggle, but as a war with the infidels. Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other forms of extremist Islam, like Whabism and Al Muhajiroun, rely heavily on university recruits, and when in 2005 the British report “When Students Turn to Terror” by Anthony Glees and Chris Pope, documented the presence of extremist Islamist groups on more than 20 campuses, vice chancellors refused to take action. The Academy is where, ironically, the seeds of its own demise are sewn and flourish. Just as they did in Europe in the 1930s.4

So I come here tonight with a profound concern about the future for Christian-Jewish relations, and even more for Christian-Jewish and Muslim relations. When I came to Australia 20 years ago, I focused on the church press in the 1930s up to the end of World War II, to see whether people were aware or cared enough to express their concerns about what was occurring in Europe. If someone 50 years in the future, looks back on the records of the Council of Christians Jews, to see whether anyone was responding to the rising tide of these extremist groups, then I would not want to be counted among the silent ones.

And yet, as I read through the latest edition of Gesher, I do see another picture: Of a story teller who’s trying to convey some core values to young people that cut across all religious traditions; Of adults who have converted to other faiths and found meaning and satisfaction within their newly chosen communities; Of interfaith projects that have brought together women of Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in a spirit of sharing and friendship. In particular, I note the growing involvement of schools and the CCJs offering scholarships to young bright students, some of whom we have had the pleasure to hear tonight.

These and other efforts in Australia give off glimmers of hope in a society where ethnic communities are all too often content to perpetuate their physical isolation and religious introversion under the political banner of multiculturalism. It’s a problem in some measure for all religious communities, but more so among ultra-orthodox Jews, traditionalist Muslims and some of the more sectarian Christian denominations (including, some might say, the Sydney Anglicans!) As long as we refuse to recognise how community isolationism adversely impacts on society, then we will preside over a phantom society, a society that is slowly starved of its public conscience. It is a recipe for civic failure and social implosion, which has already become epidemic in the UK. The casualties are more than individual, but include us all, because the sense of a common cause and of nationhood must be truly internalised before they can become real.

I have always aimed to counter that isolationism and ignorance — one begets the other — through my programs The Ark and The Spirit of Things. I know that listeners are deeply moved by the good and the wise amongst us, no matter what their religious affiliation. This week, for example, people heard about chaplains who specialise in crisis situations, calamities and natural disasters; people who come to the aid of other people who are overwhelmed with loss, injury and death. I know that the emergency ministry of Rev Dr Stephen Robinson of the Uniting Church cuts to the very quick of us all, no matter what his denominational affiliation. And yet, I also know, that it’s his faith that encourages him to act for the good of humanity. Similarly it is the Catholic faith of Sr Joan Chittister and Sr Helen prejean, which compels them toward a universalist vision of justice, that appeals to men and women of all faiths. I know because they all write and phone to tell me so.

The incomparable beauty of altruism cannot be put into words, but its effects last a lifetime. That is how people have reacted to the gift of wise words from the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks who has been a guest on my program and writes his regular Credo column in the Sunday Times. I was touched by a British Imam who was on my program last year, who said that it is Jonathan Sacks’ book, Dignity of Difference, which is his favourite, his ‘bible’ of interfaith dialogue. Similarly, I know that the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th Century Persian Sufi poet, reaches into the hearts of people today, for its universalist, beautiful and liberating verse. As this is the UNESCO year of Rumi, I’ll end with two of his couplets which speaks to me and I hope to you:

I've had enough of sleepless nights,
Of my unspoken grief, of my tired wisdom.
Come my treasure, my breath of life
Come and dress my wounds and be my cure.
Enough of words. Come to me without a sound.

Deafened by the voice of desire
you are unaware the Beloved lives in the core of your heart.
Stop the noise and you will hear His voice in the silence.5

  1. A. Roy Eckhart, Elder and Younger Brothers, Schocken Books 1973.
  2. The Conflict between the Church and Synagogue: A study in the origins of anti-Semitism, Soncino Press, 1934.
  3. Jesus and Israel, English trnsl, 1971.
  4. Since delivering this speech, Sheik Fadi Rahman, who runs Sydney’s biggest youth centres at Lidcombe in the city’s west, said that overseas Islamic elements were radicalising Muslim youth with their hardline ideologues, and virtually guaranteeing a “London type bombing” in Australia. (The Australian October 29: 1-2. A new UK report, the Hijacking of British Islam: How extremist literature is subverting mosques in the UK, by Denis MacEoin, published by Policy Exchange, London, examined 80 publications that were circulating among mosques, where Muslims were not merely encouraged to deepen affection for and identity with fellow Muslims, but taught to feel an abhorrence for non-believers, hypocrites, heretics and all that is deemed ‘un-Islamic’.
  5. Coleman Barks, Rumi, The Essential Rumi, 1995.

Dr Rachael Kohn is an ABC Broadcaster and Writer